Carys Egan-Wyer defended her doctoral thesis “The Sellable Self: Exploring endurance running as an extraordinary consumption experience” October 25. Below you can find out more about Carys and her research, described in her own words.
I came to Lund in 2010 to join the international Master’s programme in Managing People, Knowledge and Change. At the time, I hoped that the programme would tie together my varied work experience (in IT consulting, hotel management, marketing and scuba diving!) and give my career a new direction. It certainly did, but not necessarily in the way I expected. The programme, and especially the thesis work, ignited my passion for social science research. I wanted to learn more about people and to understand what makes us do the strange and interesting things that we do. So, after a year working as a research assistant at the Department of Business Administration, I applied for a doctoral position to research consumption trends.
My PhD thesis, entitled The Sellable Self, critically explores the ways in which we consume extraordinary experiences and what this can tell us about how we understand ourselves today. Spoiler: I discovered that we tend to think of ourselves as products to be developed, marketed and sold, in other words as sellable.
The kind of extraordinary experience I chose to investigate was endurance running, which includes triathlon competitions, obstacle adventure racing and ultra-distance running. Endurance running is an extreme but very popular experience in contemporary consumer culture. Many of us consume branded endurance running events, such as Ironman or Tough Mudder. If not, we might have sponsored a colleague or friend to run up Mont Blanc or perhaps stumbled across a Toughest race on the way home from the beach on a sunny spring afternoon. Few of us can have escaped the sight of people pounding the pavements or running laps in the local park, building up their stamina to compete in the increasing number of endurance running events that now take place worldwide. In my thesis, I use the idea of vocabularies of motive to critically examine the ways that endurance runners talk about running. This helped me see how neoliberal discourses and ideologies discipline or control consumers of extraordinary experiences. Extraordinary experiences are, hence, revealed as spaces of discipline and productivity as well as freedom and escape.
Taking a critical look at extraordinary experiences allows us to see beyond their glossy surface. It allows us to see beyond the romantic idea that people consume extraordinary experiences in order to escape the demands of everyday life; that extraordinary experiences are spaces of freedom. A critical perspective allows us instead to see that neoliberal discourses influence extraordinary experiences, just as they influence any other area of life. They influence how and why we take part in extraordinary experiences, how we talk about them and how we use those experiences to sell ourselves. We might understand extraordinary experiences as freedom, but we also feel compelled to take part in them. We might describe them as spaces where we are free from expectations, but we also quantify, objectify, and brand them so that they become productive and useful. We might think that extraordinary experiences are untouched by the competitive nature of contemporary consumer culture but somehow the urge to compete infiltrates, even there.
My interest in consumption has spilled over into my private life where I have developed an interest in non-consumption and sustainable consumer practices. I run a popular Instagram account and blog inspiring individuals to consume sustainably and am regularly asked to talk about sustainable consumption in the media and at speaking events. I feel extremely fortunate that my research and personal interests have overlapped and hope that I can continue to work with both consumption and sustainability in the future.